FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Irma roared through the Florida Keys on Sunday with punishing 130 mph winds and began pushing its way north, knocking out power to more than 1.5 million people across the state and collapsing a construction crane over the Miami skyline.
The nearly 400-mile-wide storm is expected to make a slow, ruinous march up Florida’s west coast, straight toward the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area by Monday morning.
Streets emptied across the bottom half of the Florida peninsula, and some 127,000 people huddled in shelters.
“Pray, pray for everybody in Florida,” Gov. Rick Scott said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Flooding, roof damage and floating appliances and furniture were reported in the low-lying Keys, but with the storm still hitting around midday, the full extent of Irma’s wrath was not clear.
There were no immediate confirmed reports of any deaths from the storm.
While the projected track showed Irma raking the state’s Gulf Coast, forecasters warned that the entire state — including the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people — was in extreme peril from the monstrously wide storm.
Nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to get out of harm’s way, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.
About 30,000 people heeded orders to evacuate the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused to leave, in part because to many storm-hardened residents, staying behind in the face of danger is a point of pride.
Rescue crews have made it clear they will be unable to reach people who decided not to evacuate at certain times during the storm. A pregnant Miami woman called for help from her home when she realized she was in labor. The crews could not reach her until the outer bands of Irma calmed down. They were able to talk the woman through the delivery process over the phone. The woman and her new baby girl were rescued after the birth and taken to Jacksonville Hospital. Both mother and baby are doing well.
Additionally, a couple of people in Martin County, Florida decided to stay on their anchored boat and attempt to ride out the storm. Marine rescue units were called to help the couple. The rescuers were able to reach the their boat and bring the two people to land safely. Rescuers want to remind residents in the area that these actions not only put residents’ lives at risk, but the lives of the rescue crews as well.
John Huston, who was riding out the storm at his Key Largo home, was already seeing flooding in his yard before the arrival of high tide. “Small boats floating down the street next to furniture and refrigerators. Very noisy,” he said by text message. “Shingles are coming off.”
In downtown Miami, one of two dozen construction cranes looming over the skyline collapsed atop a high-rise in Irma’s winds. There was no immediate word on any damage or injuries. City officials said it would have taken about two weeks to have moved the cranes out of harm’s way.
Irma made landfall just after 9 a.m. at Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles outside Key West, forecasters said. By late morning, it was advancing toward Florida’s southwestern corner, moving at 9 mph.
Key West Police urged anyone riding out the storm in that city to “resist the urge” to go outside during the eye, the deceptively calm interlude in the middle of a hurricane. “Dangerous winds will follow quickly,” police said in a Facebook post.
“Once this system passes through, it’s going to be a race to save lives and sustain lives,” Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said on “Fox News Sunday.”
With FEMA still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Irma could test the agency’s ability to handle two disasters at the same time.
Even before the extent of its potential devastation was clear, the storm made a huge swath of the peninsula’s bottom half unrecognizable.
Normally bustling streets were ghost towns. Famed party stretches including Duval Street in Key West and Ocean Drive on South Beach were shuttered. Sunday church services were called off, and theme parks were closed.
Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with a peak wind speed of 185 mph (300 kph) last week.
It left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean, and as it moved north over the Gulf of Mexico’s bathtub-warm water of nearly 90 degrees, regained strength.
The Tampa-St. Petersburg area, with a population of about 3 million, has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921. The wind was already picking up in St. Petersburg, some 400 miles north the Keys, and people began bracing for the onslaught.
“I’ve been here with other storms, other hurricanes. But this one scares me,” Sally Carlson said she snapped photos of the waves crashing against boats. “Let’s just say a prayer we hope we make it through.”
The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.
Forecasters warned that after charting up Florida’s west coast, a weakened Irma could push into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and beyond. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, some 200 miles from the sea.
Given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, Irma could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.
Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died.
This meteorologist in the Florida Keys braved wind gusts of over 117 miles per hour in the Florida Keys: